50 Years Later, We Still Don't Grasp the Mother of All Demos

Doug Engelbart presenting the computer mouse at what came to be called the Mother of All Demos in 1968.
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Fifty years ago today, Doug Engelbart showed 2,000 people a preview of the future.

Engelbart gave a demonstration of the "oN-Line System" at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968. The oN-Line System was the first hypertext system, preceding the web by more than 20 years. But it was so much more than that. When Engelbart typed a word, it appeared simultaneously on his screen in San Francisco and on a terminal screen at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. When Engelbart moved his mouse, the cursor moved in both locations.

The demonstration was impressive not just because Engelbart showed off Google Docs-style collaboration decades before Google was founded. It was impressive because he and his team at SRI's Augmentation Research Center had to conceive of and create nearly every piece of technology they displayed, from the window-based graphical interface to the computer mouse.

"It made the interaction with the machine almost compelling, it was intimate," says Don Nielson, a retired SRI engineer and executive who wrote a history of SRI called Heritage of Innovation . "Up til then, unless you were a programmer you didn't spend much time in front of a terminal or a teletype or whatever the medium."

You can draw a line from the technologies introduced at the "Mother of All Demos," as WIRED writer Steven Levy dubbed the event in his book Insanely Great , to the internet, the web, Wikipedia, the Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, Google Docs, and a host of other technologies that dominated daily life by the time Engelbart died in 2013. To Engelbart, his work was never about the technology itself, but about helping people work together to solve the world's biggest problems.

"I don't believe that as he looked around that he thought 'Oh I had a hand in that,'" says Nielson. "He would say 'They still don't understand me.'"

It's not hard to see why people didn't understand. Engelbart concluded the 1968 presentation by explaining what he believed he had demonstrated. "It’s an augmentation system that’s provided to augment computer system development," he says. "And beyond that, we’re also hoping that we’re developing quite a few design principles for developing our augmentation systems. And these, I hope are transferable things."

In other words, he wasn't presenting a collection of hardware and software, but a system for developing hardware and software—a system that ideally could be useful in other endeavors. He was demonstrating a way of working.

Bootstrapping Tools

Engelbart founded the Augmentation Research Center in the early 1960s with an eye towards helping humanity tackle its biggest problems, such as poverty, disease, and the effects of war, his daughter Christina Engelbart says.

To solve those problems, Engelbart believed humanity needed new ways of working. "Man's population and gross product are increasing at considerable rate but the complexity of his problems grows still faster and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater," he wrote in his 1959 paper " Augmenting Human Intellect ."

He believed that computers would be an important part of enhancing human abilities, but he also believed technology needed to be part of a systematic approach to problem solving and collaboration. Engelbart believed people should focus on creating feedback loops to improve their own effectiveness explains Jeff Rulifson, the computer scientist who developed much of the software on display at the Mother of All Demos. "The idea was to create tools and then use those tools to improve the tools," Rulifson says. Instead of making the tool once, it would be continually improved, based on the experiences of its users. As the tools improve, they make it possible to make new, more useful tools. Engelbart called the approach "bootstrapping," named for the bootstrap circuit in radar systems.

The Augmentation Research Center team put the bootstrapping idea into practice. They used the oN-Line System to build the oN-Line System, learning what did and didn't work as they went. That was the group's real purpose.

At the event in 1968, Engelbart didn't just show off the mouse and hypertext documents as cool. He, Rulifson, and fellow Augmented Research Center engineer Bill Paxton demonstrated how the team used the hypertext system to collaborate.

"What we’re saying, we need a research subject group to give them these tools, put them to work with them, study them and improve them," Engelbart said during the demo. "We’ll do that by making ourselves be the subject group and studying ourselves, and making the tools so that they improve our ability to develop and study these kinds of systems, and to produce in the end, this kind of system discipline."

From the GUI to Lean Manufacturing

Engelbart's ideas no longer seem so out there, thanks to management philosophies like lean manufacturing and agile software development that encourage companies to make continuous improvements to their products and processes.

Open source software is perhaps one of the purest embodiments of the Engelbart philosophy. Open source developers from around the world, often from competing companies, collaborate to build the tools they use to build more tools that they use to solve complex problems, such as building artificial intelligence systems. But the struggles of the open source community also expose some of the limitations to Engelbart’s thinking.

Making tools to solve complex problems can create new problems, and tools can be used in ways the creators might not have intended. Facebook used open source software to build a web application capable of serving more than 2 billion people. Now it stands accused of enabling bad actors to foment hate, divide societies, and manipulate elections. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency is using some of those same open source tools as part of its surveillance efforts.

In other words, bad actors can continuously improve too. Just as environmental activists can get better at trying to raise awareness of global warming or creating sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry can get better at convincing the public that global warming doesn't exist or find better ways to extract oil and gas.

Christina Engelbart, now the executive director of the Douglas Engelbart Institute, says her father was well aware of this issue, and believed it was important for good people to get better as quickly as possible. "He used to call it a race," she says.

She says her father was pleased with the development of the lean manufacturing methodology and the earlier " total quality management ." But he wanted to see those ideas applied everywhere, not just manufacturing and product development. To that end, the institute will host a series of events beginning Sunday that aim to help people finally understand Engelbart.

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